- By Eliot Kleinberg Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
On the eve of Lewis Bennett’s sentencing on federal charges of transporting stolen coins, family members of Isabella Hellmann have told a federal judge they’re heartbroken that they have no idea of the whereabouts of their lost sister’s baby.
The family of the 41-year-old suburban Delray Beach real estate broker has had a strained relationship with Bennett since he contacted the U.S. Coast Guard in the early hours of May 15 to say his catamaran had struck something and was taking on water and that his wife had vanished.
“We do not want to say anything bad about Lewis but we would like him to know how it hurts us not to be able to see and spend time with our granddaughter and niece, Emilia, since he took her out of the country,” Eduardo Rodriguez wrote in a three-sentence letter to U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King that prosecutors filed Sunday.
Bennett said last summer that he had taken the child to England.
The letter is believed to be the family’s first formal statement since Hellmann disappeared, although it did place posts on “Find Isabella” and “Find Emilia” Facebook pages.
The Coast Guard helicopter that rescued Bennett in the Bahamas had flown him to Marathon in the Keys where, federal prosecutors charge, authorities found coins on him that were stolen while he worked in May 2016 as a mate aboard a yacht in the Caribbean.
Bennett, 40, has been in custody since he was arrested Aug. 28. He pleaded guilty Nov. 30. He faces up to 10 years in prison. Prosecutors have said they will recommend a reduced sentence but did not specify a length. Bennett also faces a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of probation, as well as deportation.
Soon after his rescue, Bennett had said in a social-media posting that he took the couple’s daughter to his native England, where his parents live. Authorities will not say how Bennett returned to Florida and was arrested.
The Coast Guard called off its ocean search for Hellmann after four days. Within a day of that, Bennett wrote the agency and requested, without success, a “letter of presumed death.” In October, he filed for probate in Palm Beach County Court. That process has been delayed pending the results of “missing person” investigations by both the Coast Guard and the FBI. Neither agency will comment or has said whether it suspects foul play.
The family’s note comes after friends and relatives of the dual England-Australia citizen wrote 10 letters supporting Bennett and urging leniency in his sentencing. Family members have given scattered, brief interviews to other media outlets but have declined to speak at length with The Palm Beach Post.